E3 07: Guitar Hero III Preview

"The first thing we were worried about is we wanted to make [Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock] a real Guitar Hero experience," a Neversoft representative said at Activision's pre-E3 event last month, speaking on the challenges of handling the franchise after creator Harmonix went to work on Rock Band. "The last thing we wanted to do is be the guys who fucked it up and made it not like Guitar Hero anymore."

"The first thing we did is we went in and updated the graphics, we have some of the characters returning from the previous games, just kind of revamped to look next-gen," he continued. "We took the venues, tried to make some new venues, tried to make them look more next-gen as well."

The representative noted the motional capture used to animate the on-screen characters, including the lip-syncing of the lead singer. "There's real motion capture performances for the singer, and the drummer, and the guitar player and stuff. Also the lip-syncing and the--"

"Dancers," someone else interjected, referencing the blonde dancers clad in bikini bottoms, tight tops, and knee-high boots that gyrate on-screen during encore performances at a specific venue.

"And yeah, we got a real pole dancer to come in and do that. Fuck yeah."

Despite the abundance of information, it wasn't until a month later at E3 that I was able to actually go hands-on with Guitar Hero III and put the representative's statements to the test. Guiding me through the E3 build, and patiently answering all of my questions, were RedOctane executive producer Jeff Matsushita and PR coordinator Jordan Dodge.

One of the first things Dodge did was hand me the new Xbox 360 wireless guitar, which has been modeled after the Gibson Les Paul. I'd been looking to get my hands on the wireless guitar ever since that earlier event, when Neversoft president and co-founder Joel Jewett had ruthlessly smashed one of the wired Xbox 360 guitars into the ground until it was nothing but a shamble of broken wires, plastic and circuitry. "One thing though that fucks me off, is the fucking cord," he said at the time.

Compared to the Xplorer-inspired controller that came with the Xbox 360 edition of Guitar Hero II, the new Les Paul features a thicker neck and rounded, more convex buttons, similar to those of the original PlayStation 2 controller based on the Gibson SG. The Start and Select buttons have been relocated to be more accessible, again calling to mind the design of the initial PS2 guitar. The new guitar features two points to anchor the guitar strap, either on the back of the neck a la the Xplorer or at the edge of the body as with the PS2's SG-inspired design, along with a removable neck, which allows users to swap out face plates for the guitar's body. Both the Wii and PlayStation 3 guitars share this design, whereas the new PlayStation 2 model is shaped like a Kramer Striker.

Eager to get with the rocking, I proceeded to the character select screen, which features more realistic renditions of several returning characters as well as some new ones. Among those new characters is Midori, whose pigtails, short skirt and color boots are based on a combination of several J-Pop idols. Her skirt is so short, in fact, that certain camera angles during play provide eagle-eyed observers with an upskirt view--perhaps another nod to J-Pop culture.

Selecting series frontwoman Judy Nails--who now features more tattoos and piercings as her character design was merged with that of the other alt-rock gal, Pandora--I quickly scrolled down the song list to Weezer original recording of "My Name is Jonas." As the song was beginning, I noticed that as Judy tuned her guitar, her breasts wobbled from side to side. Noting this observation to my companions, they explained, somewhat jokingly, that Team Ninja's Dead or Alive fighting series had set a new bar for breast physics.

Given the ever-rising popularity of the Guitar Hero franchise, it comes as little surprise that bands and record labels are more comfortable in providing the original song recordings, supplying Guitar Hero III with more master track recordings than any past entry. Over half of the announced tracks are master tracks provided by the original band.

Some of these master tracks required a bit more work to obtain than others. For example, The Rolling Stone's "Paint It Black" required a trip to the vault to obtain and remaster the original 1966 recording. Living Colour, on the other hand, opted to re-record "Cult of Personality" specifically for Guitar Hero, going so far as to add in an extra solo to make it more fun to play. Matshushita and Dodge hinted that other as-yet-unannounced tracks also required a similar level of effort and would be of substantial interest to music fans. For songs that require covers, Wave Group, the company that handled the recording of songs for past Guitar Hero titles, is once again responsible.

The duo cited public lists on the internet as one of the companies primary inspirations in seeking out certain tracks. Specifically, they attributed the inclusion of Living Colour's "Cult of Personality," Beastie Boys' "Sabotage," and Guns N' Roses "Welcome to the Jungle" to those lists.

As far as the game itself goes, the core gameplay has changed very little from past Guitar Hero games. The only difference I noticed was that hammer-ons--notes which only require the press of a button, not a strum--are now surrounded by a slight glow, making then easier to notice.

However, Neversoft has added a new battle mode, which presents itself in both single and multi-player. Instead of acquiring star power, players instead earn items as they perform well, which are then activated by yanking the guitar upwards. A number of different attacks are available, such as the whammy overloads that makes note icons flash erratically, the self-explanatory difficulty up, a forced lefty flip that makes things just about impossible. Some of these last for a preset amount of time, whereas others, such as broken string or whammy bar, require players to respectively wail on a particular note or the whammy bar to play properly again.

As players compete in the new battle mode, they must completely drain their opponent's life and cause them to fail the song or be faced with a sudden death mode, in which the song starts over and the first person to fire off an attack will win.

Both battle mode and the standard competitive and cooperative modes are playable online in the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Wii editions.

In the single player mode, players will find themselves facing off against Slash, of Guns 'N Roses and Velvet Revolver fame. Not only does Slash appear in the game--complete with a character model based off a full scan of his body and animations from a motion-capture session--but he also wrote the piece for his specific guitar duel. Along with Slash, players will face off against three other bosses: two of them based off real life, though unspecified, rock legends.

When questioned about plans for downloadable content, Dodge and Matsushita noted that while RedOctane plans on releasing downloadable content, the frequency and content of those downloads has yet to be determined--meaning full albums, a la Rock Band, are a possibility.

Matsushita also revealed that the company intends to support the Xbox 360 version of Guitar Hero II with downloadable content through the end of the year, and that Guitar Hero III will be more regular with its updates as they have a larger catalog of new tracks to work with.

While Harmonix's upcoming and more full-featured Rock Band may be the talk of the industry right now, I still had fun in my time with Guitar Hero III. There were many opportunities for me to play both games and I leapt at nearly all of them. Even after experiencing the wider range of Rock Band's gameplay, I couldn't turn down the appeal of playing through some of Guitar Hero III's tracks, Weezer's "My Name is Jonas" and The Smashing Pumpkins' "Cherub Rock" in particular, just one more time.

Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock will be available this fall. The PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions are being developed by Neversoft. Vicarious Visions is developing the Wii iteration, while Budcat is tackling the PlayStation 2 edition.

Chris Faylor was previously a games journalist creating content at Shacknews.

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